León Febres Cordero; Ecuadorean President in '80s

León Febres Cordero, who was fond of cowboy films, adopted a persona of toughness to deal with his opponents.
León Febres Cordero, who was fond of cowboy films, adopted a persona of toughness to deal with his opponents. "Exercising leadership, my friend, is not done with smiles," he once said. (Associated Press)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

León Febres Cordero, a gun-toting mechanical engineer and self-made millionaire who served a troubled term as president of Ecuador in the 1980s, during which time he was briefly kidnapped by members of his own air force, died Dec. 15 in Guayaquil, the Pacific port city that is his country's financial capital.

Mr. Febres Cordero, who was 77, had a history of health problems. He endured five heart bypass surgeries and three bullet wounds suffered during a 1970 congressional campaign and twice survived cancer. He ultimately died of lung cancer and emphysema.

The very definition of a "caudillo," or political strongman, Mr. Febres Cordero was known by just his first name, which meant "lion." He dominated Ecuadorean politics as the longtime leader of the conservative Social Christian Party. An expert marksman educated in the United States, he was fond of cowboy films and adopted a persona of toughness to deal with his many opponents.

"Exercising leadership, my friend, is not done with smiles," he once said. "Smiles are good for wooing a woman but not for governing."

His presidency from 1984 to 1988 was notable for a country with an unstable political system. Since the end of a military dictatorship in 1979, he was only the third popularly elected Ecuadorean president to complete his term in office.

As president, he adopted a pro-business fiscal policy and pro-U.S. foreign policy. He tried to move the sluggish state-dominated economy into a free-market system and "attempted to govern Ecuador like a businessperson," said Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist who directs Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center.

Mr. Febres Cordero was one of President Ronald Reagan's few allies in Latin America. Reagan once praised his "determination to defeat the twin menace of international terrorism and narcotics trafficking."

Leftist guerrilla activity was frequent during his administration, and his harsh countermeasures "almost completely wiped out" that threat, according to the Inter Press Service news agency. In 1985, he sent army and police officers to rescue a banker kidnapped by guerrillas, but the banker was killed along with his kidnappers.

Mr. Febres Cordero himself was taken hostage for 11 hours by 100 air force officers in 1987, only to be released when he agreed to release their former commander, who had been jailed after two coup attempts.

He was frequently opposed by a Congress dominated by parties on the left. After he was freed by his captors, Congress called upon him to resign to promote "an atmosphere of peace and national conciliation," but he refused.

He antagonized Congress with his economic reforms, which went beyond policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund. "During his first two years, he eliminated most price controls, reduced tariffs and pared the public-sector payroll," according to the Wall Street Journal.

However, the economy still suffered. He faced seven national strikes during his term in office. A series of earthquakes in March 1987 damaged the country's oil pipeline and cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, and falling world oil prices cost the country billions more. Ecuador had 31.1 percent inflation in 1987, and his successor devalued Ecuador's currency shortly after taking office in 1988.

Mr. Febres Cordero came under strong criticism from human rights organizations for corruption and authoritarian conduct. Last year, Rafael Correa, the current and leftist president of Ecuador, established a truth commission on human rights abuses that renewed scrutiny of Mr. Febres Cordero's administration.

León Febres Cordero Ribadeneyra was born March 9, 1931, to a prosperous family in Guayaquil. He studied at the old Charlotte Hall Military Academy in southern Maryland before earning an engineering degree at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

After leaving the presidency, he served as mayor of Guayaquil and remained head of the Social Christian Party until he retired in 2002 because of poor health.

According to the Associated Press, his marriage to Eugenia Cordovez, with whom he had four daughters, ended in divorce. He later married Cruz María Massú.

Mr. Febres Cordero lived hard, once ordering a tall vodka before a morning news conference, saying, "I like one to loosen me up," and later told the AP, "My best friends are my cigarettes and my pistols. They don't ask for anything, and they're always ready."

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